Curing Manhood?

A few months ago, I attended a continuing education seminar for psychologists on men and grief. At one point in the discussion, the instructor commented, “If you think of manhood as a sickness that needs to be cured, you need to work on that.” With that one sentence, he gave voice to an uneasiness that I had been feeling in our discussions all day. Despite their biological sex or gender, those of us working as therapists tend to embody and value personality traits that are typically considered feminine. We like to listen, to process, and to talk about our feelings – about nearly everything. We place high esteem on intimacy, that is, feeling connected with others on a psychic level. And quite frankly, we think everyone should too.

Towards the midpoint of the seminar, I began to suspect that maybe we clinicians were on a mission to make men be more like us – to feel more, reflect more, relate more, and to talk more about all of it. More importantly, I recognized myself in the charge my by our instructor. In fact, I could easily imagine myself leading the campaign to have Hypermasculine Identity Syndrome (HIS) added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of psychiatric disorders. Gender identity is what I read, write, teach, and talk about. Thus, with one statement, I found myself charged, found guilty, and sentenced. So for the rest of the afternoon, I began thinking that maybe we…maybe I needed to accept gender differences as another example of “apples and oranges” and to let men be men.

But (you saw that coming, didn’t you?) there was just one problem with that: our traditional notions of masculinity in America (which, by the way, have only been traditional for about 200 years) aren’t working. Not for men, not for women, not for children.

Case in point: life expectancies. While the gender gap is decreasing, there’s been a stark gender disparity in life expectancies. On average, women in the United States live 81 years, men 76 years. The gender gap is even greater among African Americans, with African American women living an average of eight years longer than their male counterparts. The earlier deaths for men aren’t attributed to sex chromosomes or sex hormones. Rather, they’re more likely resultant from behaviors like the way men handle stress (bottling it up, not talking about it, not asking for help), take unnecessary risks, and behave violently and aggressively toward themselves and others. Okay, you won’t really find any of those factors on a mortality chart. But they are factors related to the diseases that account for some of the gender disparity. Anyway, I’m trying to make a point here, not write a research paper. The point is this – the fact that men die so much sooner that women indicates that maybe there’s something wrong with the way they live.

But perhaps more compelling are the data on how our ideas about masculinity impact relationships. In fact, this has convinced me, more than anything, of our need to rethink manhood. A major theme in that continuing education seminar was the father-son relationship, particularly the issues that many men (of all races) have with their fathers.

I see this in my undergraduate classes, especially among male students, who talk about fathers who have never told their sons that they love them. During his segment on the Tom Joyner Morning Show last week, D.L. Hughley talked about this very issue. He described once asking his father whether he loved him and getting the response, “You ate, didn’t you?” It was a tongue-in-cheek response, one which Hughley found funny at the time and one at which I chuckled even as I shook my head in sympathy when he told it on the show.

But as Hughley noted in his commentary, he later realized that the whole exchange wasn’t funny at all. He, like all children, needed to hear that his father loved him. He needed a father who did more than provide for his physical needs and comfort, a father who did more than provide rules, structure, and discipline. As he said:

I don’t know one black men who isn’t broken in some way. Broken either by the relationship he had with his father, or by the relationship he wished he had with his father…It’s a shame that you’re a casualty if you have a father, and you’re a casualty if you don’t. Finding the blend, the right way to be a father, the right groove, the right tempo to be a father, is an amazing thing…We can break a family with our presence as easily as we make them.

Our understanding of fatherhood is bound with our understanding of masculinity. And as I begin to hear more stories about men’s issues with their fathers – the ones who stayed and provided – I realize that there is some serious work to be done.

So no, we can’t just let men be men, any more than we can just let women be women. We are all deeply broken, our divine likeness obscured – hopefully not obliterated – by our conformity to societal norms and expectations about who we should be. This includes our gender identities.

Make Room for Daddy

I have been thinking a lot about fathers over the past few months. To be more specific, I’ve been thinking about the denigration of the role of fathers in the African American community. Denigration is a tough word, to be sure. And it’s not one that I use lightly. But increasingly, I’m coming to the conclusion that denigrating the importance of fathers is exactly what we’re doing.

It’s no secret that the majority of African Americanchildren are being raised in single-parent households – about 65 percent according to the latest estimate. Of course, “single-parent” is not a synonym for “absent father.” Although the media and the so-called “Moral Majority”might like us to believe that the children living in single-parent households have all been abandoned by their fathers, many of these children live with their fathers and a good many more have fathers who are actively and critically involved in their lives.

But if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that there are far too many African American children who are being raised without the presence of a father. While there are often grandfathers, uncles, or other male mentors in relationship with those children, I suspect that only a minority of those men really fulfill the role of father figure.

What’s more, there are some neighborhoods where fathers are entirely absent. It’s a running joke on Chris Rock’s semi-autobiographical sitcom, “Everybody Hates Chris,” that his is the only father in the community. There are lots of men in the neighborhood, but only one fulfilling the role of father. It cuts too close as an imitation of life. It reminds me of several years ago when I was working with a dataset from a national survey of thousands of high school students across the U.S. In the beginning, to familiarize myself with the data, I reviewed the manual that described each of the variables in the survey and the range of values possible for each variable. It was some pretty heady material but I was making my way through it okay. At least until I got to the section on community data. There was one variable where the range of values seemed statistically impossible. I couldn’t make sense of it. Finally, I realized what the manual was telling me – there are communities in the U.S. (in this case defined at the census tract level) where there are no fathers present. Not one. Not even Chris’ dad.

We might imagine that the neighborhoods in question were poor. And they probably were. Economic and racial oppression has a lot to do with the absence of fathers. But I am not content to lay sole responsibility for this phenomenon at the feet of The Man. After all, as far as I can tell, The Man doesn’t plan on changing the system anytime soon.

Perhaps it’s the focus on economics that has many college-educated, financially successful sisters deciding to bear children without the benefit of a committed father. I’m not going to speculate on why these women aren’t married or even argue that they should be married (that’s a topic for another day). Rather, I want to question the notion that seems to be underlying this trend – namely that prosperity (and maybe a strong sisterfriend network) is a substitute for a father. The idea seems to be that if a woman makes enough money or has enough support from family and friends, then she can raise a child successfully without the father’s involvement. And there are many examples that prove this to be true. In fact, there are many women who have raised children successfully without the benefit of money, a strong support network, or a father.

But is this the exception rather than the rule? Let’s face it – maybe Bill Cosby could have worded it better (and nuanced it a great deal more) but he wasn’t all wrong – come on people! Yes, racism, classism, and sexism matter – a lot. However, I believe that it is precisely because these interlocking forces of oppression bear down upon black children and create an uphill battle for African American parents that we must do whatever we can to protect our children. And part of that protection has to involve fathers.

In my class on African American families, we read Mary Pattillo-McCoy’s “Black Picket Fences,” an analysis of the strengths and struggles of middle-class African American families. At the heart of Pattillo-McCoy’s argument is that the prosperity and privilege of middle-class African Americans does not insulate their parenting. Even in this tight-knit community, gangs, crime, and teenage pregnancy were highly prevalent. As we read the text, my students and I noticed a consistent factor in the lives of the teenagers and young adults who had succeeded – fathers. Each of them – whether their parents were married or not – had fathers who were actively involved in their lives. In fact, children who lived with their mothers but had daily contact with their fathers fared far better than did those who lived in households with fathers who were tangential.

Fathers matter. And they matter for more reasons than their financial contribution or even the benefit of having another body involved in childrearing. After a long time of ignoring fathers (and blaming mothers for everything that went wrong with children), child development experts have begun to realize this. There is a growing body of research that shows that fathers – good fathers – offer something that is unique from what mothers offer. And I believe that most children need the benefit of both to fully thrive.

In other words, African American women have got to stop using that mantra “I’m mama and daddy.” We’re not. And if you need any further evidence of that, just look to the number of young women who are chasing down father figures in the form of unhealthy sexual relationships and the number of young men who are chasing them down by emulating a model of manhood that they’ve seen on the corner or on BET. We have to reclaim the role of fathers in our communities. Otherwise, we may be throwing our children’s lives down the drain.